By Paul Chimera
Salvador Dalí Historian
So many of Salvador Dalí works truly leaves us in awe. The term “awesome” is way overused today. It’s become a tired cliché. Being in awe of something is to truly be transfixed and transformed by it. And that’s a rare occurrence.
But it happens with astonishing frequency when we consider certain of Salvador Dalí’s works. Everyone has their favorites. My bias will be evident here, because – unlike an outlandish comment made to me by the late, esteemed TIME magazine art critic, Robert Hughes – I believe Dalí’s post-surrealist works were his most magical, most awe-inspiring.
Back in the 1970s, I wrote to Mr. Hughes, asking him what he thought of Dalí. I sensed from most of his coverage that he wasn’t a fan. But I wasn’t prepared for this comment, in the letter I received back: “Salvador Dalí has done nothing of significance since the publication of his ‘Secret Life’ autobiography in 1941.”
Today, that comment is laughable. It was then, too.
Obviously there are many surrealist works by Dalí, mostly from the 1930s, that qualify as ones we regard with awe. The Persistence of Memory probably leads the way, in part because it is inherently mysterious and reality-bending, in part because it’s the most famous surrealist painting of all time.
Of course, there are tremendous works like Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire; Espana; Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, and countless others – all of which leave art lovers in awe of Dalí’s imagination and talent at the easel.
For me, it’s almost exclusively the post-surrealist, Nuclear-Mystical masterworks that engender awe. I’m talking about breathtaking masterpieces such as Christ of St. John of the Cross, The Sacrament of the Last Supper, Santiago El Grande, Battle of Tetuan, The Madonna of Port Lligat, Assumpta Corpuscularia Lapislazulina, among others.
All painted after 1941 — sorry, Mr. Hughes!
I remember seeing Corpus Hypercubus (Crucifixion) for the first time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was sandwiched between Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein and an abstract-expressionist work.
I noticed a few people standing before the Picasso, and a small number in front of the abstract painting. And then there was the throng looking up in silent awe at Corpus Hypercubus. This is the “stun” factor, the “awe” factor, that Salvador Dalí’s work is all about.
In my view, there are two chief reasons that explain why Dalí works hold such allure. One is the inimitable twist Dalí put on everything. He saw in a very different way, in no small part due to his Paranoiac-Critical method, which involved – to quote Dalí himself – “systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”
It added up to spectacular and monumental double-image magic like The Hallucinogenic Toreador, and powerfully moving images like Santiago El Grande and Ascension. And, indeed, the remarkable Tuna Fishing.
The other chief reason why Dalí’s work elicits such a palpable sense of awe in us is his painting technique – probably the best of anyone in the last century. Early on, Dalí described it as “hand-painted color photography,” and a work like The Virgin of Guadalupe or Nature Morte Vivante demonstrates that if ever there were hand-painted works that look photographic in their precision, these are two of many that fit the bill.
In short, Salvador Dalí’s exceptional technical skill seemed to make the unreal real. And that, my friends, truly is awesome.
(Images used under Fair Use provisions for journalistic purposes only)